In the traditionally strict Hollywood movie formula of three acts, character genesis and lovely happy endings, the idea of the Downer Ending is a pretty strange concept. Sure, character-focused stories will generally have some sort of major conflict somewhere around the middle, but conventional story-telling wisdom suggests that before you get there, you're given some time to build up a rapport with the characters. Not only so that their tribulations carry more weight, but so that you're reassured that they're probably going to be alright in the end.
Not so with those films that start with heartbreak, though. Those films barely get through the opening credits before they're grabbing hold of the rug and pulling it out from under you. Or pulling the plug out of your world and sending you tumbling down into the emotional abyss. They know what they're doing and they know precisely how impactful a devastating opening scene can be.
It's like being immediately lost at sea. Like you're struggling to catch your breath and your footing at the same time. All bets are off and you're literally only minutes into the movie. Great isn't it?
Since we're talking downer openings, what better way to start than with a movie opening designed to be so utterly provocative in its devastating agenda that the response you'll feel is positively visceral. That's Lars Von Trier for you though, isn't it? He doesn't do things by half.
Not content with killing a toddler - who curiously climbs to an open window in his parents apartment and falls to his death in the snow - Von Trier juxtaposes the harrowing, tense sequence with an entirely different type of scene. The poor child is only unsupervised because his parents - Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg - are locked in the throws of passionate sex.
Repulsively, we're invited to watch their ecstasy as their child slowly makes his way towards his doom, with what's about to happen painfully obvious pretty much immediately. It all gets very weird from there on, but that opening punch is still the haymaker.